Editorial | 10/9/2010 at 6:18 PM

Co-Op Casual Friday: D&D Castle Ravenloft Board Game

Every once in a while, we like to cover good cooperative board games here at Co-Optimus.  Just as the past few years have brought co-op to the forefront in video games, a large number of co-op board games have been released in this time period, too.  We've covered a few here, namely Pandemic and Castle Panic.  Today, we'll check out a hot new board game based on an iconic Dungeons & Dragons setting, Castle Ravenloft.

I was in 5th grade when I first took a trip to Castle Ravenloft.  A small group of geeks like me had banded together to play Dungeons & Dragons during recess.  Who needs kickball and swingsets when you can be a powerful wizard or mighty paladin invading the eerie castle of an ancient, specllcasting vampire with a tragic past?  Ravenloft was so popular that it spawned an entire campaign setting and several novels, steeped in the traditions of gothic horror.  And now, more than a quarter century after Count Strahd was first unleashed on the world, a board game set in his lair is the hottest board game around.

Castle Ravenloft is very much a lite version of the latest Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, combined with random tile placement and a fantastic set of plastic miniatures representing the players and the denizens of the castle.  Five characters are available, each with differing attributes like Armor Class and Hit Points.  The basic fantasy archetypes like dwarven clerics and elven wizards are all here, though a half-dragon fighter adds a nice bit of variety. 

The party of adventurers will have to face kobolds, zombies, ghouls, giant spiders, and even more nasty creatures as they explore the castle.  Thankfully, each character has lots of different ways to take them down.  Some abilities are powerful enough to allow one use only, while others can be used at will.  Each ability is represented by a card, so there's no flipping through the rulebook to find out how much damage Magic Missile does, for example.  A very MMO-like twist is that even the fighter has many different choices, unlike the days of basic D&D.  Each player starts with a treasure card, as well, and when monsters are defeated, more treasures can be found.  Treasures might be items like magical weapons and armor, or simply minor effects that otherwise assist you in surviving.

One of the best parts of Castle Ravenloft is the fact that no Dungeon Master is needed.  Everyone who wants to play can just choose a character and do so.  This adds greatly to the feeling of cooperation, since players play against the game itself rather than one versus many.  So how does all this work?  Tiles are drawn at random and placed when characters are next to an unexplored edge of the map.  Most tiles will spawn a monster, drawn from a stack of monster cards.  The monster's miniature is placed, then the exploring player controls that monster according to the instructions on the monster card.  Another benefit to this method of tile and monster placement is that the difficulty scales perfectly no matter how many players are involved.

One of the inherent tensions in the game is balancing exploring with slaying monsters.  If players don't actively explore, they draw from the encounter deck, and this includes events that are usually much worse than new monsters.  Traps can kill weakened characters outright, magical warps can split up the party at the worst times, or Strahd might simply call for more minions to join the fray.  Encounters can be backbreaking, but players can choose to spend experience points (earned from slaying monsters) to cancel any encounter.  Experience points can be saved to level up, too, but you cannot do so unless you roll a 20 to attack, and only one time.  In most cases, spending experience to counter nasty effects is the best option.

Combat is Castle Ravenloft is fast and easy.  Players choose an attack, roll a die, add on a modifier, and compare it to the monster's Armor Class.  There's no rolling for damage or additional effects at all.  Some might find this too simplistic, but with so many different attacks available, and different variables to consider, it works out well.  We found that the game struck a nice balance between enjoyable complexity and reasonable playtime.  An adventure book with thirteen unique scenarios lets you dungeon crawl a bit differently each time, and most scenarios can be completed in around an hour or so.  All manner of fan created scenarios are available to extend the fun even further.

The presentation of Castle Ravenloft deserves mention.  The tiles and tokens used are thick and sturdy, and should last through many sessions.  The cards are a bit flimsier than I'd have preferred, but since they are usually played on the table instead of in hand, it's not a huge issue.  The best aspect of the game is the miniatures.  Quite simply, they are fantastic.  They are not painted, but cast in a variety of different colors of plastic; still, the level of detail is superb, and there are quite a lot of miniatures included for a relatively low cost when compared to similar games.  The huge dracolich figure is especially jaw-dropping, and quite intimidating in play as well.

For fans of co-op, there's a lot to love in the huge box full of awesome that is Castle Ravenloft.  It's a great way to replicate the old school Dungeons & Dragons experience without having to purchase a library of rules books and expensive maps and miniatures.  Castle Ravenloft is deep enough to appeal to all but the most experienced board gamers, yet the excellent presentation, especially the figures, give it casual player appeal, too.  For about the price of a new release video game, you can purchase this excellent boardgame and enjoy hours of cooperative fun in the horrific lair of an ancient undead evil.  Just don't forget to bring the garlic!

Thanks to BoardGameGeek.com for the pictures!